While visiting my father in Greenwich Village not too long ago, I walked over to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum for a peek at another era in this working-class immigrant neighborhood between the Williamsburg Bridge and the restaurants of Little Italy. During an informative guided tour, I was immersed in the lives of two recently arrived immigrant families who once lived in the three-room apartments on the first floor. One family, Julius and Nathalie Gumpertz of Germany, survived the Panic of 1873, and the other, Adolfo and Rosaria Baldizzi of Italy, who resided next door, endured the Great Depression decades later.
The museum gives tours of 97 Orchard St., a tenement built in 1863 that was home to 7,000 people during its 70-year existence in this densely populated neighborhood. The building is four stories and a basement, which once housed a thriving German beer pub. On each floor are four flats with a shared water closet. As our personable tour guide informed the group, although we associate a “tenement” with poverty, it is simply, as defined by New York law, a building that houses three or more unrelated families. Hence most New Yorkers have always lived in tenements.
In its earliest days, the dark hallways and windowless rooms were lit only by candlestick, and residents relied on a four-stall outhouse behind the building. Water-borne diseases were prevalent. When gas light was introduced, the walls of the narrow entry hallway were decorated with oil paintings of pastoral scenes. However, the building was abandoned in 1935 when the landlord could not afford to replace the thick mahogany banister, deemed a fire hazard, with one made of metal to conform with new building codes.
The museum was created and the tenement slowly restored in the 1980s after its purchase by an enterprising woman dedicated to sharing the immigrants’ stories. In 1992, it opened its door to tours of the renovated flats occupied by hopeful families arriving during the country’s largest waves of immigration. The museum also strives to locate the ancestors of the families who resided there to faithfully re-create the lives in those tiny apartments. Therefore, visitors are privy to touching stories, and glimpse at personal objects and photographs.
We learned that Julius Gumpertz abandoned his wife and three young daughters, which was not uncommon during this troubled economic period. And when Nathalie Gumpertz inherited $600 from her father-in-law in Germany, she moved her family to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A Gumpertz descendant, who worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I looked around the room and saw my fellow tourists nodding with understanding when the guide explained Baldizzi’s desperation, and I couldn’t help wonder why it is that some current generations of Americans forget the struggles of their heritage, and seem unable to empathize with the plight of today’s immigrants.